Working in Partnership – owning expertise

Indeed, whatever the organisation or professional with whom you are trying to work in partnership, the first priority is to know your own expertise, to know its content and to know its limits, and finally to know where there are potential overlaps with the partner professional. As is so often the case, this may seem to obvious to say, but there are distinct organisational tendencies to the way different professionals hold their own expertise. Medical doctors often seem to be unburdened by self doubt. This can be intimidating for others and can lead to an insufficiently critical evaluation to be made of what they say. Their expertise is hard earned but medical training builds in the owning of expertise to the learning experience. They have to pin their colours to a mast of diagnosis and treatment in a way that is hardly ever possible for social workers. They are expected to be expert and to test that expertise against the judgement of their peers by presenting papers to each other as they go through training and afterwards.

Social workers by and large operate without direct peer scrutiny, rarely stand in front of each other as experts and are all too frequently likely to say of themselves, ‘I’m no expert”. Even when interviewing candidates for a job as a social worker or probation officer, a question about the candidate’s skills would rarely be answered confidently or convincingly. All too often, the reply would be a list of past work experiences not of skills. I became sceptical of many who did claim skills – those who said ‘they were good with young people’ turned out to be good at superficial relationships with young people but weren’t much use at helping them with the realities of their lives. We even said to each other at times, that only those who said they disliked working with sex offenders should be allowed to do so. Social work skill is hard to pin down, especially in the abstract,and is best revealed through demonstrating an understanding of a particular client or family and their predicament, and by demonstrating active listening skills within the partnership relationship itself.

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